New World Blackbirds: The Icterids.—Alvaro Jaramillo and Peter Burke. 1999. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 431 pp., 17 text figures, 39 color plates. ISBN 0-691-00680-6. $49.50 (cloth).
The New World blackbirds (Order Passeriformes, Family Emberizidae) are a diverse and interesting group of birds that range from Alaska to Cape Horn. Many common North American species have been frequently studied, but most South American species are poorly known. There are already a large number of books and articles published about blackbirds. New World Blackbirds: The Icterids, is the latest attempt to summarize our knowledge of, and stimulate further interest in, the icterids.
Alvaro Jaramillo and Peter Burke have attempted to present an illustrated “comprehensive guide to the 103 members of the family Icteridae.” It is not intended to be a field guide, nor is it intended to be a handbook. According to its authors, the book is a “starting point” and a “resource to which the reader can turn when the field work is done.” It is intended for a lay audience, and it focuses on species description, identification, and natural history. Each of the 103 entries includes a color plate and range map, and discussions of identification, voice, description, geographic variation, habitat, behavior, nesting, distribution and status, movements, molt, measurements, notes, and references.
The book begins with a brief introduction, which explains why icterids are interesting and outlines the authors' goals, and then provides a “mini-course” in ornithology, with brief discussions of bird systematics and taxonomy (including an interesting account of the species concept), plumages and topography, and behavior and evolution (containing the curious statement: “Observations of how male Red-winged Blackbirds choose their territories and how females choose to settle within those territories spurned the idea of the Polygyny Threshold Theorem …”). The introduction concludes with notes on the organization of the species accounts, and a curious glossary of just 11 terms. The 39 color plates follow. For the most part, those plates, which depict distinct plumages of males and females, age classes, and subspecies, are extremely good, and in some cases they show plumages that have not been illustrated previously. For example, the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is depicted in its own plate (Plate 22) with 12 different illustrations. Perhaps the only missing aspect in this elaborate display is the diversity of plumage in adult females during the breeding season. My only objection to those otherwise wonderful plates is that some have backgrounds that are too dark. For example, the very dark background on Plate 21, which shows three Caribbean species of Agelaius blackbirds, makes them seem very drab even though they are probably quite conspicuous in their natural habitats. In addition, as a 50-year-old reader, I must note that the print is microscopic.
Jaramillo and Burke deserve praise for their attempt to describe and stimulate interest in the poorly known species of blackbirds. In my opinion, these accounts are the strength of this book—I wish they had been available when Bill Searcy, Scott Lanyon, and I were working on our phylogenetic analysis of polygyny in Agelaius blackbirds. It is truly amazing that blackbirds would include both the “lab rat” of field ornithology, the Red-winged Blackbird (its account is about nine pages long), and many species that are virtually unstudied (several South American species have accounts just over one page long each). In writing this book the authors had to deal with some problems inherent in ornithology today. For example, which plumage and molt system should be used? What taxonomy should be followed? When should a subspecies be included, and when should species be lumped or split? Readers will appreciate the authors' efforts even if they disagree with their decisions.
Although I would recommend this book for libraries of all kinds (college, museum, community, and personal), I am not sure that it hits any particular target audience very well. A lay person will find most of the book tough going, both in terms of its writing style (e.g., too “scientific” with its long sentences of multiple clauses) and its approach (e.g., little attempt to bring to life the ornithologists who study these birds). In contrast, the incomplete coverage and indirect referencing for areas of current interest may frustrate ornithologists. For example, the authors assert that extra-pair copulations were unknown in Red-winged Blackbirds until molecular methods became available, but both direct observations and results of vasectomy studies demonstrated the existence and effectiveness of EPCs at least 15 years before DNA analyses produced quantitative estimates of extra-pair fertilization frequency.
These “target problems” stem in part from the book's conception by negation: it is “not a field guide” and “not a handbook.” In the final analysis, however, New World Blackbirds: The Icterids, is what it claims to be: a guide to the icterids that summarizes the characteristics and natural history of each species. I am pleased to have it on my bookshelf.—KEN YASUKAWA, Beloit College, Department of Biology, Beloit, WI 53511, email@example.com